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Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Experience the sights, sounds and rhythms of an African village as Sarah Erdman, armed with a four year US college degree and three months of training to be a healthcare worker ... describes two years of her life spent with the Peace Corps, in Nambonkaha, on the Ivory Coast of Africa. Ms Erdman proves up to the task of learning the customs/traditions of the village, utilizing the protocols of local politics to achieve her goals. She is understandably irked/outraged by the concept of embezzlement (" bouffer") that is rampant wherever government funds/large business transactions occur. She is touched to the core by the village's response as they present her with gifts ("cadeau") when she runs out of funds while her house is being built. Sarah Erdman proves to have an indominatable spirit and courage to face the tasks and challenges before her ... she wants to make a difference in the lives of this village. She understands the realistic obstacles she faces. The main tangible obstacle is lack of funds, making due with what is available and the realities of poverity. The intangible obstacles are local customs, cultural beliefs and the religious underpinnings of animism despite the outward stated religion of Islam (Muslim).
Working within the system, Ms Erdman recognized she could not change long-standing social norms and life-styles. She accepted polygamy and the problems associated with raising an extended family. Certain social norms/duties were ingrained in the culture that can not be changed despite the fact they created deeper problems for the survival of individuals and society as a whole. One man in the village was obligated to accept the widow of his cousin as his fourth wife. It was an unquestioned duty and norm for him to receive the widow of his brother or cousin as his wife. It was a benefit to him and his family to have more wives who provide for more workers to farm the local cash crop, raise the children within the family, and who provide needed help and respite for the other wives during their pregnancies. The new wife had a beautiful doe-eyed baby who developed fevers and a rash called "boutons" ((English, "buttons"). When the routine of antibiotics did not cure the fever ... AIDS was suspected and confirmed. Essentially, the social obligation of accepting the new wife (who did not know she had this disease) became a death sentence for this husband and all of his wives. Perhaps, the children will survive but *only*if precautions are followed (known).... they would be accepted into *another* extended family, after their parents died. This is one example of the cycle of illness/death/despair/poverty which is difficult if not *impossible* to break and overcome despite the help of outsiders. The ultimate reality is: the villagers themselves need to change and break the cycle. Ms Erdman asks the BIG QUESTION, "How do you promote behavior change so that people have more control over the state of their bodies but stop at
the threshold where important traditions get destroyed?" [p. 48] Perhaps, she provides the answer by writing this book, demonstrating that one young white woman daring to go to the heart of an African village and living there for two years, *CAN* and *DOES* make a difference. She received honor, acceptance, and recognition by the village mayor and elders, in that she was allowed to sit and eat with the men during village meetings and cermeonies. The village mayor thanked her in his own way, by approving/appreciating her "healthy-baby contest" efforts to improve the nutrition and health of the African children. He allowed AIDs education, which broke taboos, because unementionable body parts were discussed and shown on film (by a regional government group). Ms Erdman's approach for AIDs education was to write a play with local villagers chosen as actors to fulfill roles to teach the concepts of how AIDS is spread and to teach 'safe sex' practices. In this book, Sarah Erdman shows how one person who truly cares, can touch the hearts, souls, and lives (bodies, health) of a village through knowledge, sensitivty and respect for the culture of a people who are different from her own. She shows the value of getting involved and doing something to help humanity. My highest recommendations. Erika Borsos (erikab93)
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2003
This was one of the best books I have read in a long time. It was touching and refreshingly personal. Sarah struggles with issues familiar to all development workers - "How do I instigate behavioral change now that I have disseminated the information?" She doesn't have the answers, but some insights, which only come from living so closely with a community. She shares these thoughts and the people of the village with her reader, avoiding clichés and stereotypes.
As a former student of economics and having worked in community development overseas, I feel that this book is must read for individuals in these fields. Sarah lets you in the secret obstacles to capitalism not found in textbooks and defines the role of a successful development worker - bringing out the best of those in the community so that "progress" comes from within, not from a temporary outsider. Of course, I would highly recommend this book to prospective Peace Corps volunteers, or those who have always wished they had volunteered as well; you will truly be transported to Nambonkaha, Côte d'Ivoire.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2004
I want to congratulate Ms. Erdman on her book and her Peace Corps experience, and for being the sort of person that made both possible. The book is the best Peace Corps memoir I have read. I was a Peace Corps volunteer for three years in northern Togo (Sansanne-Mango) in a similar ecological and cultural environment (small, pre-electrification village; predominantly Muslim). To me, just about every word of Erdman's narrative rings true. I thank her for bringing it all back so vividly (I served 1980-83). Language footnote: in Togo, yam "foutou" is "foufou" and millet beer, "chapalo" is "chakpalo."

I could not disagree more with the notion that the book was not "personal" enough. In my experience, many Peace Corps volunteers understandably spent a lot of time focussed on their own reactions to their experiences. Fair enough, but then some had the presumption to think that the rest of us would be interested in reading about them. Erdman, in contrast, stays in the psychological background enough to let the people she is writing about show themselves more clearly, and thereby reveals herself in a way that to me explains her apparent success as a volunteer. It is of course true that the Peace Corps is a combined personal voyage of discovery/cross-cultural experience. When attempting to write a memoir about it, focussing too much on the former tends to distort the interpretation of the latter. I prefer Erdman's approach.

If you want a better sense of village life in this part of Africa than provided in Nine Hills, you're going to have to spend a couple of years there yourself. Peace.

Chuck Manning

Seattle
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2003
I couldn't agree less with the reviewer from Atlanta. Sarah Erdman's book is beautifully written and is compelling throughout. As for the reviewer's perception that she stood around and let people do things: What book did you read? Also: A goal of many aide organizations such as the Peace Corps is often to hold the lamp, not always to chop the wood. If aide workers do this, what would be learned? What would happen when they leave? When Erdman left her beloved Nambonkaha, the life skills she taught continued. I couldn't put this book down and congratulate the writer on her excellent perceptions about human nature and Africa. I love her writing style, and ability to capture the personalities of her friends in the village. Can't wait for more.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2004
Nine hills is a journey. You follow Sarah who is in the peace corps and her struggle to help the village of Nambonkaha, in northwest Africa, learn about health, their bodies, disease and most important AIDS. Many of the villagers do know about the dangers of disease, AIDS and female circumcision, but they do not try and stop it. Sarah finds the village people fascinating. She educates them in traditional ways, flyers and classes, and nontraditional ways with plays and having the women preform in front of the whole village. You learn about the small village of Nambonkaha, but also of the larger country of Africa because Africa is made up of so many of these small villages. This book is great for people who are interested in joining the peace corps, like helping people, or love to read. It's a story that never ends, because you'll still want to learn more about Africa and these simple yet intriguing people.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on September 11, 2003
I read alot...2000+ pages per week. Much of what I read I find is either badly written or not emotional stirring--fiction and non-fiction. I picked up Nine Hills to Nambonkaha on a lark this summer--my local bookstore invited me to pick from their advanced reading copies which would go otherwise unread. Within three pages, I was living in the Cote d'Ivoire with Sarah Erdman. Not only is this an incredibly absorbing account of Ms. Erdman's stint as a Peace Corps worker but (gasp) it is beautifully written and (gasp, gasp) accessible to all. If I was giving Pulitzer's this would be it. Go read it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2006
Honest, earnest, compelling, extremely well-written narrative of two years serving the Peace Corps in a remote village of Ivory Coast-- I emerged from this reading with a knowledge and respect for the people of the village, as well as for the sincerity and objectivity of the author. Sarah Erdman's account of how she works out her unique role as an outsider with a mission to improve family health in a tradition-bound, closely-knit rural village is one of the best of its kind.

Also recommended: Peter Hessler's RIVER TOWN and Mike Tidwell's THE PONDS OF KALAMBAYI.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2004
Nine Hills To Nambonkaha is one of the best true stories I've ever read! I give this book five stars because Sarah Erdman has a brilliant talent for writing what she sees, but also writing what she feels. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha is about her wanting to help the village with their health problems. She comes from within the Peace Corps, just one woman, but in the end that's all this village needs. She opens up the eyes of the villagers by talking about issues that nobody else would dare speak outloud about. Issues like malnutrition, how to be a good mother, and the biggest " silencer" of all AIDS!! I was touched greatly when I finished this book, knowing that an outsider to the village of tradition could be known as one of their own, like a sister. Also she was welcomed and will always be remembered by the people of Nambonkaha. I was very sad when i finished the book because I was so wrapped up in all the emotions that were expressed at the end, that i never wanted her to leave. If you want a story about real poeple and what they go through every day to stay alive, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha is the one your looking for!!! A Excellent read !!!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2005
This is a truly wonderful book. Rarely have I read a book of this genre where I feel that the author really understands the very interesting complexitites of African community life. Erdman "gets" it; the dynamic between urban and rural, village elites and everyone else, rich and poor, northern and southern, etc. Either she understands all this better than any other author or she has just done a better job articulating it.

Of course there are many faces of Africa and one size does not fit all, but there are still many lessons that ring true elsewhere. I served in another West African country in a village that was not Muslim, was not in the north, and yet I saw so many similarities to what Erdman describes. Very well done!

In terms of recommending it to would-be Peace Corps Volunteers, I find that this sort of book simply must be read AFTER serving in the Peace Corps to really be appreciated. If you do read it before you go, make sure to read it again after you get home. For anyone else who wants to read a novel that really conveys the everyday life of rural African communities, look no further. Bon travail!
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2005
Sarah Erdman's recounting of her two years in Nambonkaha, Cote d'Ivoire draws you in like a storyteller by the fire. In fact, much of Erdman's year in Nambonkaha as a medical worker, is spent in learning to live in a place lit by fire, and healed by witchcraft and herbs.

A small place on the road to Mali, Nambonkaha in the years that Erdman spent there is not so much a backwater, as a resting place between ancient customs and the entry of the modern world into village life. It is symbolized by the electrical poles which stretch south beyond the village to Mali, and north beyond the village to the larger towns in northern Cote d'Ivoire. The villagers anxiously wait for the government to make good its long-delayed promise of electricity, though most have nothing they could use it for anyway.

Erdman, as a treasured outsider, sees that electricity will rob the village of its quiet darkness, and immediately cause the quiet financial differences among the village residents to make class a part of everyday life. When the electricity finally comes, all but Erdman celebrate -- and she loses the soft darkness of her house to a bright yellow light that shines all night through her windows.

In the course of the narrative, Erdman experiences new friendships, and new kinds of relationships. She is to be a midwife, but with nothing much more than a textbook to help her she struggles bravely through some difficult pregnancies and births. She also carves out a well baby program, using her knowledge of village politics, suggestions of her friends and helpers, and meager resources available from Ivorian government agencies.

Erdman's writing is extraordinary in several ways. She tells a complex tale of two years in Africa in a manner that lays out the narrative both logically and affectingly. She gives each person she portrays a three-dimensional quality, and she never flinches from showing and telling her own doubts, her mis-steps, her ignorance of custom, history and culture.

Her descriptive powers bring the chaos of the public transport system into sharp focus, nearly put the dust of the marketplace on the reader's tongue, and capture her own feelings without making herself the center of the story. It is a story of a village, not of a Peace Corps worker, and that is what I found most extraordinary of all.
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